“Does Prohibition Work?”: Traveling the Mustard Trail with the National Federation of Settlements and its Committee on Prohibition, 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After a stimulating discussion yesterday with the Homestead’s Non-Fiction Book Club concerning Robert Fogelson’s Fragmented Metropolis, a history of Los Angeles from 1850 to 1930, friend of the museum, Jim Crabtree, brought some fascinating items from his personal collection on Prohibition, given that we are now commemorating the centennial of the passage of the constitutional amendement banning almost all production, distribution and consumption of alcoholic beverages.

What grabbed my attention was the book Does Prohibition Work?, written by Martha Bensley Bruére and issued by Harper & Brothers in 1927.  The work is subtitied “A Study of the Operation of the Eighteenth Amendment Made By the National Federation of Settlements, Assisted by Social Workers in Different Parts of the United States.

These images are from Martha Bensley Bruére’s Does Prohibition Work?, published by Harper and Brothers in 1927.  Thanks to Jim Crabtree for the loan of the book.

Settlement houses were institutions that arose during the mass migrations of foreigners to America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and with which, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, where Hull House, perhaps the best-known settlement institution in the nation, was located:

The settlement idea appealed to young Americans who wished to bridge the gulf of class, help the urban poor, implement “social Christianity,” and understand the causes of poverty . . . the first outreach was to children and mothers, through day care nurseries, kindergartens, and small play lots.  Mothers’ clubs, English classes, and groups interested in arts, crafts, music. and drama followed.

Tellingly, it was noted that settlement houses catered to recent arrivals from Europe, which may have been true for Chicago and other urban areas of the Midwest and East, but which was decidedly not the case for Los Angeles, where Mexicans and Asians constituted a large proportion of new residents.

In any case, the quotation above is rather generous in its description, while it should be acknowledged that many settlement workers had sincere motives for their often-difficult work.  As a review of Does Prohibition Work? and especially its chapter on “The Mustard Trail” with respect to Los Angeles shows, however, there was no shortage of paternalism and stereotyping in how the movement broadly looked at its charges.  In this case, it was through the lens of analysis of the effects of Prohibition.

The book’s foreword noted that the genesis for a committee’s nationwide study of settlement houses and their communities concerning Prohibition grew out of a challenge issued at the National Federation of Settlements conference in Cleveland in May 1926.  The result was “the appointment of a committee to investigate and to assemble authoritative information of such changes in family life as may be credited or discredited to the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment.”


The committee included prominent figures in the settlement house world, including representatives from facilities in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Voston and Buffalo, including the famed Jane Addams of Hull House in the Windy City.  That listing, however, reveals a crucial geographical bias, so that representatives traveling to the Pacific coast necessarily lacked the familiarity with the issues found in places like Los Angeles.  It is also is apparently dominated by religious Protestants and Anglo-Europeans.

So, when it came to the analysis of “The Mustard Trail,” it is notable that the opening statement was that the Tehachapi Mountains constituted a definable physical line between northern and southern California, but also representated a change in “a state of mind.”  Obviously, there are other geographical regions that seem rather obvious to those who know about California, not the least of which is the difference between urban and rural areas in and around major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles that has nothing to do with the cliched “north vs, south” approach.

In fact, the book claimed that “the River Rhine itself does not divide peoples of greater divergence in customs and traditions, in temperament and antipathies.”  The author then asserted that “to undersrand so divided a state as California in its reaction to prohibition one must understand its history.”  This is where such blanket statements prove to be problematic in making arguments about what prohibition meant in a California that was far more diverse and complicated than the book claimed.


A quote from Mary Roberts Coolidge, a sociology professor at Mills College in Oakland, is almost comical in its academic conclusion about who violated Prohibition.  First, those who felt that drinking was essential to entertaining.  Then, “the Bohemian set, closely allied to extreme individualists, lawless ‘by pose’ on any matter which they don’t like.”  Third, first and second generation Europeans, particularly from the wine-drinking southern areas who could not distinguish between the climates of their home nations and America “where good food is more abundant and the general climate more stimulating.”  Finally, there are young people, who associate teetotalers with “piosity” and Puritan ideas and “as a matter of pride they break the law in order to be ‘mannish’ and independent.”  How Coolidge could make these conclusions based on the standards of her profession would be interesting to know!

Drawing an analog to French priests who established outposts in the northeast and midwest, Bruére stated that “so the padres sowed a Mustard Trail up through California.”  The manufacture of wine and brandy was part of the mission system and it was noted that “the oldest and largest grapevine in America is in southern California,” though its location at Mission San Gabriel was not specified.

It was further observed that missionaries brought the vine from Spain “and planted it in the patio of the old ‘dobe mission,” which is not true, as it is outside of the stone church and associated complex.  It was added that “under its ever-extending shade the padres converted the Indians to Christianity,” but no mention was made of the forced labor of many of the neophytes, the treatment accorded to them, and the horrific death rates through disease, alcohol and violence that took place among the indigenous people.


Working an old cliche, the writer added that “for years after the conquest of California from Mexico southern California slept beneath sun” and that there was no appreciation of the value of the land beyond the mad rush for gold.  Later, residents of states with more challenging climates heard of California as “a land where oranges gew luxuriously even while the snow lay dazzling on the mountains tops, of golden fortunes to be had for the lazy turning of the plow.”

Farmers, merchants and others were “running away from the last of winter” and enchanted by tales “of the evergreen year, of exotic flowers and enormous fruits, of a warm land, of easy living, or joy in the sunlight.”  So, too, were the invalids who heard that “Los Angeles was a Lourdes for sick Americans” as well as an “El Dorado for poor Americans.”

Indeed, the author intoned, “Los Angeles grew like Jack’s beanstalk, overnight.  From a sleeping mission with droning neophytes [indigenous people], it awoke to find itself a great sprawling American city, as widely advertised as Monte Carlo, as Paradise itself.”  This tired trope of a sleepy pueblo slowly becoming a major city—in this case made worse by the assertion that Angelenos merely woke up to find a mighty metropolis on the make—was complemented by something more factual.


Namely, because many of these arrivals were from states that voted for prohibition at that level, “in Los Angeles they voted dry.”  Moreover, the proportion of women who migrated to the city and region were different than the few “women of the gold camps [who] were of questionable origin, of questionable pursuit; they were rugged, manlike, the decent as wel as the outcast.”  But, the women who came later were “of the south [and] were wives and mothers who lived on the land . . . always they had been against liquor, always—back in Kansas and Idaho and Iowa.”  Of course, those states were not “of the south,” but no matter!

Trying to link the fact that “the old traditions of the Spanish padres vanished, crumbled, and decayed with the adobe missions” to the idea that “these folk [who migrated later] brought a new tradition to California and planted it beside the old grapevine,” the writer drew a clear distinction between the degradation of the Spanish and Mexican era with the purity of the American period.  Even when “Mexicans came in large numbers to work . . . their foreign ways and drinking habits never influenced the population.”

Bruére went on to claim that “the foreigner never played the part he did in northern California” so that “Los Angeles, the articulate Los Angeles, is American, where things ‘foreign’ are under suspicion.”  San Franciscans voted wet, Angelenos voted dry, the argument continued, and “”in the land of old Mexico, the language of Iowa is spoken, of the Middle West, the language of the bone-dry, back-home state.”


This blatant racism, claiming that only “foreigners” drank and the “American”, solidly of the Midwest, South and other areas of the country, did not, is astonishing to our ears, but almost certainly found ready believers among the readership of this book and among others.  There was a quote from Bessie Stoddart of the Los Angeles Settlement Association that:

Our settlement people’s children, now grown, are much better off financially and socially, owing, we feel, in great part to their having gotten away from the constant domination of the saloon, which was one of the chief causes that held their parents back.

Because Does Prohibition Work? explicitly stated that the goal of the publication was to avoid statistics and rely on the stories of people, these opinions can’t be verified and, of course, no one seems to have considered asking the immigrants their take on the matter.  Instead, those quoted were social workers, settlement house workers, and local officials who, it appears, were vigrous supporters of Prohibition.


So Carl May, supervisor of adult probation in Los Angeles, stated “I can safely say that men plaed on probation today are greatly assisted in rehabilitating themselves with prohibition on the books,”  Whether true or not, the next paragraph quotes a social worker dealing with the Japanese and Mexican communities stating that the former were “prosperous and dignified” and, like Jews, free of liquor problems, while, among the latter, “liquor plays a minor role and prohibition has not changed matters grearly.  They are able to get liquor still.”

Curiously, this worker opined that, while bootleggers were bad as saloons were, “I consider the bootlegger as preferable to the saloon in that he is not permitted by law but only flourishes in the inadequacy of its reinforcement.”  What that last part meant, though, is not particularly clear.

Superior Court Judge Carlos Hardy was quoted as saying that, with the onset of Prohibition, misdemeanor cases, presumably of drunk and disorderly conduct, were down, “but there has been an increase in narcotic cases, though it was added that “he relates neither condition to prohibition, nor does he connect the increase in felonies with liquor.”  If so, why quote him at all?


The state’s adult education chief said that she heard of occasional reports of student drinking in grammar and high schools, but that “this is particuarly true with outlying communities,” a qualifier which seemed to indicate that drinking was less frequent in the city than the rural areas.

Yet earlier, the inference was that the migrants from rural states were enthusiastic Prohibition supporters, unless the idea here was to blame Mexicans for the infractions.  After all, the next paragraph asserted that bootlegging was because “the Mexican boder is near and the outlying country dotted with grapevines.”


Another unidentified social worker offered another interesting point of view:

The immigrants came with high ideals of American life and find citizens jeering at the laws of their own making and indulging in a thriving trade of this illicit nature.  They see the wealthy offender go free and the poor one dealt with undue severity.

Here, then, was another interpretation of class, whereas the above cited examples were of race and geography.  It appears from this quote that it was both the poor, being ethnic minorities like Mexicans vulnerable to influence, and the rich, who clearly would be white elites, who were most likely to flout the law.  The middle class and some working class whites, it seems, were the standard bearers for Prohibition and virtuous, moral living free from the dangers of alcohol.

The section on greater Los Angeles concluded with the observation that some of the press, wieldin influence, were supportive of Prohibition (the Los Angeles Times being a preeminent example, though no specific papers were identified).  Moreover, “the sentiment of the community is against any modification,” though there was no acknowledgement, in fact, that there was opposition, including from among the region’s business elite who were concerned about negative economic impacts from Prohibition.

The final statement was “Los Angeles, as its reports show, is relatively dry, although one report states that ‘it will take a generation or two before prohibition wins out.'”  Within just six years of the book’s publication, however, Prohbition was repealed.


All in all, Does Prohibition Work? offers a strange methodology by countering social science approaches to the question and foregoing statistics and data with an anecdotal approach that, at least with the Los Angeles section, comes across as unfocused, scattered and often downright contradictory.

Much of this may be due also, beyond methods, to the lack of familiarity of the visiting committee members with the region, especially as they focused their visitation with legal, social and political workers and elites and did not appear to speak with anyone from the immigrant community or working class, precisely those portions of the population that, evidently, were most suspect in terms of their love of drink and the victims of its most pernicious effects.

Outright racist assumptions, painting with broad brush, uncorroborated statements, and questionable associations of drinking only with certain populations, often through forms of twisted logic are rife in this book.  As the accompanying fold-out map, denoted “Tell-Tale Trails,” shows, the problem was not confined to the discussion of “The Mustard Trail.”  Note the existence of “The Negro Migration” and “The Mexican Invasion,” [now, there’s a timely reference] alongside “The Scandinavian Drift” and “The Covered Wagons.”

Does Prohibition Work? makes some interesting conclusions at the end of the tome, including the assertion that “business and production have profited” during the boom times of the Roaring Twenties so that “business men and manufacturers are in favor of the law.”  Just two years after the book’s publication, though, the illusion of lasting, rising prosperity was shattered by the onset of the Great Depression, during which, at its darkest moment, the movement to repeal Prohibition succeeded.


Yet, Bruére explicity stated “this is not a study of the rich,” so that considering how the middle and upper classes responded to Prohibition was simply excluded.  Moreover, the focus was on cities and towns where settlement houses existed and rural areas were basically left out, even though some assumptions were made, as noted above, about rural regions and drinking.

The author claims that “this study does show . . . the circumstances under which the law is operating satisfactorily,” including “wherever there is a Nordic-American population which for several generations has not been in close contact with the newer immigrations or the cosmopolitanism of the great cities, there prohibition works.”

Then, Bruére adds that the law worked well, too, “in general in the northwest, is true in general in the South and in Maine and in parts of of the Mississippi Valley.”  Why Maine and not New Hampshire or Vermont, or which parts of the Midwest or South is left unexplained.


But, when it came to “large unassimilated foreign populations accustomed to the making and use of alcoholic drinks and also an eager market for their product, as in the great ports and the industrial cities, there the law is halting and veering and difficult to apply.”  In what is hardly a confident and firm conclusion, she ends with:

But the reports do show that all of the things hoped for by the advocates of prohibition are being realized in some places and that even when the law is least observed, some of them have come true.

Does that statement, however, answer the question of “Does Prohibition Work?”?

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